While Theresa Rebeck's low-budgeted rural hangout comedy sports a fine cast, they can't quite elevate the proceedings beyond the occasional modest laugh.
Movies that are remembered are generally on a spectrum of cinematic triumph to shoddy exercise for an inexperienced rube’s hubris. Then there are the films that get forgotten – they generally aren’t bad, they just don’t offer anything new. The cinematography is serviceable, the acting believable but uninspired, and the plots are well-trod and safe. Screenwriter and novelist Theresa Rebeck’s directorial debut, Trouble, unfortunately falls in the middle of the film quality spectrum.
Trouble concerns siblings Maggie (Anjelica Huston) and Ben (Bill Pullman), who have become estranged after Ben sold Maggie his half of their family’s land after running into financial trouble. Ben feels robbed by the transaction, believing that Maggie shouldn’t have jumped on buying the land and helping him out financially. Determined to regain his inheritance, Ben convinces Rachel (Julia Stiles), an employee in the Bureau of Land Management, to falsify the original sale records so he can build a house on “his” side of the property. Tensions escalate, leading Maggie to shoot her brother, setting the pair on a road to reconciliation.
The main selling point of Trouble is its cast, who are absolutely the movie’s major selling point. Rebeck used her screenwriting and producing connections to gather a roster of well-known (or at least recognizable) actors for a low budget flick, and the cast is as good as you would expect. Especially notable is Stiles, who portrays Rachel as a mousy woman whose people-pleasing awkwardness makes her seem younger than her years.
Supporting cast aside, the film’s main draw are the leads. While one would expect Huston to be the standout, the film belongs to Pullman. Ben is your typical harmless small town skeezeball, and Pullman plays him perfectly. Pullman’s swaggering, smirking movie star persona translates shockingly well to his hunched over, irascible small-town country boy. Ben thinks he’s charming, despite being anything but, giving Ben a likability in many ways the character doesn’t deserve.
As for Huston, the screen legend’s performance isn’t bad, just uneven in spurts. The film starts with Maggie in a yelling match with Ben, and Huston doesn’t seem comfortable letting herself get into Maggie’s anger. There is a hesitancy in her performance that makes it feel less than genuine. However, that scene is really the only poor part of her performance; perhaps it was early in shooting, and she was still getting into character.
Huston’s performance for the remainder of the film is much more nuanced and natural. Her best scene is the scene where Maggie wings Ben after a blustering showdown; Huston has a cold fury in her eyes, and a confidence that covers up insecurity and hurt. It’s evocative of Frances McDormand’s rural fury in Three Billboards…, though the stakes for her are much smaller.
Despite the cast’s admirable efforts, however, their performances don’t quite successfully elevate the rather domestic proceedings at hand. While Rebeck’s direction is workmanlike and perfectly acceptable for the low-budget nature of the film, her script has trouble drawing the audience into the small-town world she’d created. Her characters are little more than stock characters: The film’s Vermont hamlet is populated by beleaguered small town sheriffs (here played by Spotlight’s Brian d’Arcy James, well-meaning friends, and fed up medical staff. The only characters who seem fresh are the sweet, ditzy Rachel and her morally dubious boyfriend Kurt (Jack Parrack), who Inject the middle-aged squabbling with a slightly more youthful perspective.
You could excuse the abundance of stock characters, because the film is supposed to be a comedy. But the key word in that last sentence is “supposed to” – the film garners few laughs. Trouble features a few successful gags and bits of comedic banter, but if the rest of the film was supposed to provide chuckles, it’s hard to tell. The only consistent laughs are the scenes where Rachel and Kurt make out in an incredibly awkward manner and the unbearably schmaltzy flashback scenes-, whose humor is more than likely unintentional.
That isn’t to say the film works entirely as a drama, either – the stakes are too low to really allow us to grab onto the story, leaving it little more than a rural hangout movie. After Maggie shoots Ben, the characters don’t do much except for drink and smoke pot until the third act. There’s even an attempted murder that is never really addressed. It is the epitome of low stakes, and it makes the film feel bloated and slow in the second act.
Trouble is a film that has little to offer outside of its cast, and even these experienced and talented actors aren’t given the chance to shine they deserve. While nothing about the film is objectively awful (apart from the comedy), there’s nothing particularly bad about it either. In the end, it’s simply an inoffensive rural comedy that fails to make a particularly strong impression outside of its overqualified cast.
Trouble is currently playing in Chicago at the South Barrington 24.